A Huge, Dark World
“You’re only 17 once,” says high school football player Connor Cole, “I mean, I have the rest of my life to worry about pain and stuff like that. I can only, you know, play football for so long. I might as well use the time I have and worry about the effects later.”
Like a lot of 17-year-olds, Cole sees himself as living for the moment. It’s fun to play football, to take risks, and to feel tough. It’s also potentially lucrative, if he can make it from his high school team to a respected college program, and from there, perhaps, if he’s oh so lucky, be signed to an NFL contract. His attitude is shaped by his experience, by models set by adults, his commitment to his team or his idea of “the game.” As Sports Illustrated‘s David Epstein says, “The game’s about toughness. That’s part of the bonding, and part of the learning experience.”
As rewarding as the game can be, however, it is also progressively more dangerous. As reported in Frontline: Football High, which premieres 12 April, this evolution has to do with changes in technology and expectations. “There have always been injuries in high school football, but they’re on the rise,” says ESPN.com columnist Gregg Easterbrook. “The ramping up of pressure on high school kids, the intensity of high school play, the increase in size, strength, and speed.”
The pressure comes from multiple sources. Football High begins with the example of Arkansas players who suffered heat stroke. Tyler Davenport, a 16-year-old offensive tackle for the Lamar High School Vikings, collapsed during practice on 11 August 2010. His coaches weren’t prepared for the event, and without an athletic trainer on staff, no one understood the necessity of cooling Tyler’s 108-degree body immediately. This year, according to a report by a local TV station, Tyler’s parents are looking forward to the governor signing a bill to mandate that coaches will be trained in life-saving techniques. When the bill becomes law, they tell the reporter, they won’t have to worry about their 11-year-old son someday practicing with his team on a hot summer day.
But heatstroke—and the underfunding of programs that led to the lack of an athletic trainer at Lamar—is not the only risk for high school players. As Frontline shows, this is only a most obvious problem. Others are built into the game, part of its appeal, for example, the hard hits that thrill fans, fellow players, and coaches. While such hits have lately attracted increasing attention—and college and the NFL have begun to regulate the treatment of players’ concussions—other, less spectacular plays also have deleterious effects.
Football High considers as well the example of Owen Thomas, who played football from the age of nine and killed himself when he was a college student. Though he had never been diagnosed with a concussion, his brain showed early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same disease that too frequently afflicts professional football players. According to Chris Nowinski of Boston University School of Medicine, which conducted the study of Thomas’ brain tissue, “We were hopeful that this 21-year-old who’d been playing 12 years, that [the results] would show that you need more than 12 years to get this disease, you need some more, you need real concussions to get this disease, but Owen’s case kind of opened up a huge, dark world.”
That huge, dark world has to do with repetitive injuries, in particular injuries that seem minor or go unnoticed altogether. If a player doesn’t realize that he’s been hurt, or believes that if being able to see how many fingers are held in front of his face is enough to qualify him as un-hurt, he will go back in. Experiments with sensors inside players’ helmets, conducted at Purdue University in 2009, reveal that even those who were never diagnosed with a concussion “suffered significant damage to their memories.” This means, says Purdue’s Tom Talavage, “that sub-concussive blows, these blows that do not result in overt symptoms, have the risk of impairing your abilities.”
The other, related trouble is, that even as professional football and college programs are increasingly regulated, youth football, from elementary school through high school, is not. And so the “huge, dark world” includes the likelihood that kids will not self-report injuries and that adults will not see them. As the game gets tougher—as players are weighing more and moving faster, as their collisions are becoming more sensational—the effects can also be more calamitous.
Football High illustrates this increasing risk in the program at Shiloh Christian High School in northwest Arkansas. Players and coaches there—as well as the local pastor, Ronnie Floyd, father of head coach Josh Floyd, who suggests they’ve improved because it’s God’s will—are working hard to build their reputation. Recently ranked, they’re invited to play the number one high school team, Euless Trinity from Texas. Of the 89 players on Trinity’s varsity squad, Frontline notes, “18 of them weigh over 250 pounds.”
They seem the very embodiment of Nowinski’s assessment of improved training and nutrition programs: “We’ve learned a lot in the last couple decades and so suddenly we’re able to turn these young boys into big monsters.” As the camera looks up at the Trinity players, the Shiloh kids look small by comparison. Shiloh doesn’t have a chance. Travis Mosely, identified as a “Trinity parent,” explains, “That’s their style of ball, hit ‘em, hit ‘em, hit ‘em, hit ‘em. They’re gonna hit you in the mouth, they’re gonna keep hitting you in the mouth until you say, ‘uncle’, so. So it’s a beautiful thing to be on their side.” Indeed, this is exactly the effect of the game as you watch it. And as courageous and determined as the Shiloh players appear, you might feel like wincing.